Kindle pilot is discriminatory, advocates charge

Some legal experts say groups advocating on behalf of blind students have a strong case with their lawsuit against Arizona State University (ASU). The suit claims using the Kindle DX in a pilot program this fall would discriminate against blind students.

ASU is being sued by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the American Council of the Blind (ACB) over the pilot use of Amazon’s Kindle DX eReader to distribute eTextbooks to its students, because the Kindle DX’s menu isn’t accessible to the blind. Darrell Shandrow, a blind ASU student, is also named as a plaintiff.

The device features text-to-speech technology that can read textbooks aloud to blind students, but the menus are not accessible to the blind, making it impossible for a blind user to purchase books from the Kindle store, select a book to read, or activate the text-to-speech function, NFB said in a press release.

Richard Bernstein, a disabilities attorney who says his life’s work is to ensure people with disabilities have equal rights, said ASU’s use of the Kindle DX is a serious violation of rights and needs to be rectified.

“The reason that this is so unbelievably significant, why this is so disheartening, is the blind community was so excited about this Kindle,” said Bernstein, who is blind. “The idea [was so appealing] that myself and other blind people would have the opportunity to read a newspaper on an airplane or in an airport and [have] the opportunity to do things that sighted people take advantage of every day.”

These hopes were dashed, Bernstein said, when the text-to-speech feature was deactivated.

“The [text-aloud] reading capability is in the Kindle. The Kindle has it right now. We’re not asking them to create a new technology; the technology actually exists right now in the device,” Bernstein said. “This is the future. Ultimately, everything is now going to go to an online format and the idea that people with disabilities–especially the blind–are going to categorically be left out of this process is going to devastate our entire community.”

Bernstein, who also is the chair of the board of governors at Wayne State University, said that he plans to put forth a resolution in the fall asking that no university funding be used to purchase Kindles unless or until Amazon is willing to allow the text-to-speech technology to become accessible. “All we’re doing is asking them to turn on the voice-activation switch, which they turned off,” he said.

Though harder to enforce, Bernstein said he also plans to introduce a resolution that asks faculty and students not to purchase any products from Amazon unless or until the company makes the Kindle DX more accessible.

“Unless Amazon is willing to work to make this situation better, then we’re going to fight all over the place,” he said. “You have an entire group of people that is not going to have access to this technology. If we don’t fight this, and fight this hard, and challenge this as much as we possibly can both legally and publicly, then what’s going to happen is that we’re not going to have a future.”

Virgil Renzulli, vice president of public affairs for ASU, said in a statement that ASU is committed to equal access for all students.

“The university has joined in a pilot program for the Kindle reader for a single course where students may also access traditional textbooks,” he said. “ASU serves students with disabilities through disability-resource centers located on all ASU campuses. The centers enable students to establish eligibility and obtain services and accommodations for qualified students with disabilities. These efforts are focused on providing the necessary tools so that all students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to be successful in their academic pursuits.”

But NFB President Marc Maurer said that given the highly advanced technology involved in the Kindle DX, there’s no reason that it’s not accessible to blind students.

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